Why you should care
The bullpen in the MLB postseason keeps growing in importance. Braves fans, it’s time to worry.
In Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, with the Kansas City Royals leading the series 3-1 against the New York Mets, reliever Wade Davis came out of the bullpen, pitched a shutout inning and helped end the Royals’ 30-year World Series drought. In so doing, he started the current era of MLB postseason bullpen fever.
The Royals were patient zero for this fever — building a power pen and winning it all in 2015 — and then the fever spread. Bullpenning a game — using four, five, six relievers to win — has become a thing in baseball and especially in October. The percentage of work given bullpens in the 2013 postseason was 34.8. In the 2017 postseason, that number rose to 46.5 percent.
Now that you’re ruminating on the importance of the bullpen in postseason ball, consider the following stat as you handicap your team’s chances this postseason:
Only four teams in the past 40 years have won a World Series when their bullpen has averaged four walks per nine innings.
Avert your eyes, Atlanta Braves fans. These stats should worry you. The Braves’ relief corps was 17th in earned run average (4.15) and 16th in batting average of balls in play (.298) this season. Per FanGraphs, it also ranked … 30th, dead last, in walks issued per nine innings by the bullpen, at 4.41.
Braves relievers started fires; they didn’t put them out. It’s worth noting that the other teams near the bottom in this ranking, namely the St. Louis Cardinals (4.34) and Chicago Cubs (4.18), didn’t even make the postseason. Of the teams in the playoff field, the one whose bullpen is at all close to being as worrisome as the Braves’, the Boston Red Sox, still ranks eight spots ahead, issuing 3.75 walks per nine innings.
The Miami Marlins in 2003, the New York Yankees in 2000, the Marlins in 1997 and the Minnesota Twins in 1987 are the only MLB clubs to win the World Series when their relievers walked four or more per nine innings. You know what they say: Walks will kill ya.
For [Brian] Snitker, the issue is simple: inexperience.
As his team prepared to play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series, Atlanta manager Brian Snitker was asked if the walks issue was starting to smooth out. Not yet, he said.
For Snitker, the issue is simple: inexperience. “It’s a young bullpen; we have a lot of first-year major leaguers in that bullpen,” he said.
Many of the teams in this year’s field, including the Yankees and the Oakland A’s in the American League and the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League, are considering bullpenning games in the divisional round. That puts teams with weaker pens at a marked disadvantage.
Gloom has hung around the Atlanta bullpen most of the season. It settled in for good on Sept. 5, when the Red Sox bashed Braves relievers and rallied from down 7-1 in the eighth inning to win 9-8. The bullpen must be why FanGraphs gives the Braves just a 3.1 percent chance to win the World Series.
There are some caveats, though — another way of saying stats can be a bunch of bunk. In a five-game divisional series, starters, presumably those pitchers with better arms, will be stashed in the bullpen to supplement the regular core of relievers. Also, the superior lineup can trump whatever mess the bullpen gets itself into. The Red Sox and Houston Astros certainly have superior lineups.
And that brings us to why all might not be lost for Atlanta this postseason. The Astros’ bullpen wobbled in the 2017 playoffs, yet Houston won the World Series. The ERA of the Astros’ postseason pen was 5.40. Houston’s relief game was only steadied when manager A.J. Hinch used starters as relievers.
Sure, a lot more is going on in the game from the sixth through the ninth innings. A walk is just one play. Timely hitting, home runs and errors also factor in. But against stout competition this postseason, the walks that happen in the sixth through the ninth innings are going to be a glaring issue for an underdog, something that has to be avoided.
“We’ve been better lately,” says Braves lefty reliever Jonny Venters. “This series, we’re going to attack the zone and get strike one.”
Atlanta did trade for Brad Brach to bolster its bullpen, but his walks per nine are 4.02 for the season, and 5.1 in August.
This postseason, don’t expect a fifth team to join the ranks of the four who have found World Series success with a walk-happy pen. These days, it’s bullpenning or bust.